Nov 16, 2013; Tucson, AZ, USA; Washington State Cougars running back Marcus Mason (35) runs the ball under pressure from Arizona Wildcats linebacker Derrick Turituri (45) and cornerback Shaquille Richardson (5) during the fourth quarter at Arizona Stadium. The Cougars beat the Wildcats 24-17. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports
When someone mentions Washington State Coach Mike Leach or his Air Raid offense, most people gravitate toward the topic of quarterbacks and wide receivers. Heck, that’s almost axiomatic, isn’t it?
Listening carefully to Coach Leach during his conference call last Monday, it was clear what position is crucial to the success of what many call a “pass happy” offense.
Running back performance in Leach’s offense is key to whether or not WSU lights up the scoreboard.
For example, when the Cougs traveled to Eugene in mid-October to take on the Ducks (who were ranked No. 2 at the time) they established a new NCAA record for pass attempts in a ball game.
“…we scored more points on Oregon than anybody. We broke the passing record,” stated Mike Leach matter-of-factly. Technically, Oregon would surrender 42-points in an inexplicable loss to Arizona a couple of weeks after Stanford knocked the Ducks out of contention for the national championship for the second consecutive year.
Let’s get back to Leach talking offense…
He went on to reveal the key to WSU finding the end zone so often against the Duck ‘D’.
“Our running back position touched the ball more than anybody that game.” There was a good reason that was the case. “Some (emphiasis), the defense dictates that. They’re going to devise their defense and give you something and take something away.”
Try to shut down WSU play-makers Gabe Marks, Dom Williams or Vince Mayle by doing whatever necessary to keep them from getting behind your secondary and expect a steady dose of plays designed to get Marcus Mason or Teondray Caldwell in space to do their thing.
The overwhelming majority of football coaches strive to employ a balanced attack to achieve success moving the ball and putting up points on an opponent.
Nov. 10, 2012; Pullman, WA, USA; Washington State Cougars running back Marcus Mason (35) makes a catch against the UCLA Bruins during the second half at Martin Stadium. UCLA won 44-36. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
Leach goes about attacking defenses with less conventional offensive schemes. “It’s critical that (our running backs) get their touches. It’s critical that they’re involved in the offensive effort because they’re the best athletes out there with rare exception. Whether you run it or throw it, you have to get the running backs the football.”
If you peruse the Washington State stat sheet and limit analysis to the paradigm most popular in college football, Marcus Mason ranks as the best the Cougs have at carrying the rock. He has 424-yards on 83 runs. Not the type of numbers which turn heads.
But he also has another 372-yards on 49 receptions out of the backfield. Combine those for all-purpose yards and the view of Mason’s production comes into better focus.
When it comes to evaluating Marcus Mason, it’s not all about the numbers.
Mason’s leadership has played a significant role in moving Cougar football in a positive direction this year according to Mike Leach.
“He’s real steady. Marcus is real conscientious to do everything perfect,” says Leach.
One of the reasons WSU is returning to post season play and are favored in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl is the emergence of Mason.
Leach recalled the process of how Mason stepped up his game saying, “I thought it was about when we started last year’s off-season. Somewhere in late January.”
“He’d hesitate some in trying to be precise. Sometimes a guy is too conscious of being precise and play slower than he is. Marcus is explosive. When he put that aside and just really worked hard in the off season, then he kind of developed as a team leader.”
“Then when we went to camp, not just (focusing on) running back, I mean he worked hard at everything he did and just became more and more consistent. In a young team, consistency is a very important commodity,” continued Leach.
Describing what he means to this team, Mason’s coach got on a roll.
“He just became a dominant special teams player…in areas you guys might not be conscious of. Then (he) just became steadier in all phases as well as a guy you could lean on. When he talks to the team he does a great job. (He’s) very clear minded. Very specific. I hate the word because it’s a very vague word, but sort of developed a maturity to him. A better word might be kind of a presence. Kind of a guy that could share his perspective and it had a value through examples as well as his words followed it up … Then you could look at him anytime, with regard to actions and he was doing it, too.”
When Washington State takes the field on offense against Colorado State this coming Saturday, expect to see Connor Halliday directing his team with passes, passes and more passes.
And if CSU doesn’t account for Cougar running backs, their defensive guys will have a good view of the names across the top of WSU jerseys…only visible from behind a player racing toward the end zone.